June 9, 2018

Feminist Fundraising: Can’t be nice all the time

Amanda Gigler
This article is written by:

Amanda Gigler

A reflection on interrogating gratitude, being honest and other feminist killjoys*

A monthly reflection on feminist fundraising written by Mama Cash director of partnerships and communications, Amanda Mercedes Gigler. Twitter: @amandagig

This instalment of Feminist Fundraising was inspired by the sex workers’ rights movement.

There’s a useful, small cloth bag hanging on my office wall with the slogan: Can’t Be Nice All the Time. A Mama Cash colleague-friend bought it for me at the Can Do bar in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when we visited the sex workers’ rights organisation, Empower Thailand. Like many sex worker-led organisations, Empower rocks the pithy, meaningful slogans. And they run the Can Do bar.

As a feminist working in fundraising and communications, I constantly learn from sex workers, who are often extremely skilled at the art of strategic communication aimed at raising money.

Empower’s slogan puts feminist fundraising politics into practice: Can’t Be Nice All the Time.

Being nice can be a loaded exercise for both fundraisers and for women – lots of fundraisers are women, by the way. Women are told to smile, to agree, to be nice. Fundraisers are also taught to smile, to agree, to be nice. There’s a trend toward  the feminisation of fundraising, and at Mama Cash we’re creating a trend toward the feministing of fundraising.

In my last blog post I wrote about the politics of asking and thanking. These are two aspects that make feminist fundraising different. If the feminist fundraiser has done their work, then the art of asking is transformed from an appeal to an invitation.

“Do you recognise that the organisation I have the privilege of representing is working toward social justice? And that your own liberation is bound up with ours, and all people’s? Of course you do, you intelligent, responsible, justice-seeking, politically active person! Welcome to our giving circle.”

And on thanking: let’s interrogate appreciation and what it means to be generous. What does it mean to give what you can give versus giving so much that you can feel the stretch, in times when socio-economic inequality and wealth accumulation are so vast that they’re perverse?

If one person has accumulated so much that they are able to give without feeling the stretch, what exactly are they being thanked for? If an institution’s purpose is to distribute funding, as is the case with private and public foundations and some governmental agencies, are they being thanked for doing their job? And who is thanking whom, exactly?

Part of feminist fundraising with individual donors is having a conversation that brings the person giving along on a journey with Mama Cash. Instead of “being nice”, we’re sharing our experience, our frustrations and our joy. We also share results, both in big numbers and human stories. We listen to what people want, what moves and inspires them, what fuels their dreams. Individual donors tend to dream along with us and along with the movements we serve. And they trust that these activists’ experiences and Mama Cash’s experience are valid: donors show this by giving freely and by not restricting the use of their donations.

Some of our institutional funders also know that the feminist movements we’re supporting don’t thrive when the funding we get is earmarked to a particular issue, a limited activity or a specific location. Almost 35 years of experience, data and anecdotal evidence point to this: core, unrestricted, long-term funding makes a significant difference in an organisation’s health, capacity and resilience, and, ultimately, its ability to make feminist social change happen.

Of the dozen or so institutional funders to Mama Cash, only four provide us with completely unrestricted funds, making up about 18% of our entire organisational budget. Donations from individual people, which account for about 12% of our annual budget, are mostly unrestricted: less than 20% of those donations are limited in use by the person giving.

“Our entire grantmaking budget is less than 6 million euros annually. For the entire world.”

This means that overall, almost 80% of the money Mama Cash raises comes from funders who restrict how and where their money can be used. Most of that 80% is restricted down to the exact country (and theme or issue) where the money can be spent. I’ve seen a growing trend in institutional funding becoming more acutely restricted in the past few years. Pre-2015 very little of Mama Cash’s institutional income was restricted by country, more commonly it was restricted by broad region or to a general issue area or to a donor-identified population group.

The unrestricted funding from institutional – and individual donors – is worth at least three times the value of the restricted funding. Three times more useful is my pseudo-scientific feminist fundraising educated estimate. I could go as high as ten times more useful on a good day. Here’s where I feel like being nice and thanking each of the four institutional donors that provide Mama Cash and the movements we serve with unrestricted funding, and thanking the thousands of individual donors who don’t earmark their donations. And out of respect to our shared politics, I go beyond the thanks and bear witness to your profound feminist solidarity.

We really can’t be nice all the time.

I don’t feel like being nice when we have to decline funding to new groups that are doing deep, organised, feminist social change work led by women, girls, trans folks or intersex people. Especially when the reason is that we don’t have enough unrestricted funding to support all these groups.

I don’t feel like being nice when I hear that Mama Cash is one of the largest women’s rights funders in the world. Our entire grantmaking budget is less than 6 million euros annually. For the entire world.

I do feel like being nice when I think back to the evening I spent in the Can Do bar in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Surrounded by fierce activists who are creating a safe space for all feminists, including sex workers, including trans people, including migrants, queer folks and people of all origins, abilities and ages.

I do feel determined (and nice) when I recall Empower’s Can Do message: We Can Do what it takes. We can make the case, invite the funding and solidarity, give without limits, take risks, take care, enjoy our bodies and build our communities.

And on that Can Do note, stay tuned for next month’s blog on the topic of Feminist Fundraising in late stage capitalism. Money – it all comes from the same place and no amount of love or justice can launder it clean. 

*The phrase “feminist killjoy” was publicly coined made popular by Sara Ahmed, whose insightful, killjoy body of work can be explored here.

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